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Stories

By Joel Stewart

After Dark

Divorcing Dad Michael takes his son Ethan for an unauthorised camping trip, where they have a terrifying encounter with… they don't know what.

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Action/Adventure, Coming of Age, Relationships/Family

Story Details

  • Title : After Dark
  • Author : Joel Stewart
  • Word-Count : 7119
  • Genre : Adventure, Coming of Age, Relationships/Family

About The Author

Author

Joel Stewart lives in Athens, GA with his wife and two children – raising them bilingually in English and Italian. His work can also be found in WestWard Quarterly, Page & Spine, and The Stray Branch.

Michael Fisher sat outside on the patio of the coffee shop where Linda had told him to meet. He looked at his watch and cursed under his breath, taking another sip of his lukewarm coffee. She was now forty-five minutes late. He dialed her phone and it went straight to voicemail. Michael looked up at the sky. He was losing the light.

“Dammit, Linda,” he said out loud as he stood up, knocking his chair over. He walked over to the flowerbed and tore the lid off his coffee, spilling some on his hand as he dumped it out, then he crushed up the paper cup and slammed it into the trash.

“Temper, temper, Michael.”

There, standing at the entrance to the cafe, was Linda. She was wearing her dark grey suit, one hand with her phone still up to her ear, and the other was holding a little boy’s backpack.




“If you can’t keep your anger under control like the judge said,” she continued. “You’ll lose these weekends all together.”

“Where’s Ethan?”

“Still in the car. I wanted to make sure you were here.” She held out the backpack.

“Here? I’ve been here for the past hour.” He snatched at the backpack, but she refused to let it go. He yanked harder, pulling her with it. He could barely control himself. He started prying her hand free.

“Give me the damn backpack, Linda. It’s my time now. You’ve already cost me an hour of it.”

Linda remained calm. Too calm. She looked at him and then let go. Then, she pulled her phone back up to her ear.

“Did you get all that, Larry? Yeah.” She shook her head and looked away from Michael.

“No, nothing serious, just an abrasion. Yeah, I’ll send one right now.” She held out her phone and snapped a picture.

Michael was frozen. She had done it again. She knew how to push all his buttons and this time had made him almost lose it. Now she also had her lawyer, who had undoubtedly recorded the whole thing, as a witness to the scene, and an ‘abrasion.’ She was trying to keep him in line, keep him happy with these one-weekend-a-month visitations. Linda brought the phone back up to her ear.

“Got it? Okay. I’ll see you on Tuesday then.” She turned and looked at Michael. “We can discuss our next move.”

She hung up without another word. Michael couldn’t help but wonder if Larry had done the same, or if he had remained on the other line, silent, waiting for a goodbye like an idiot.

“You are one incredible bitch.”

“Just trying to show the world what I’ve known for years. If you weren’t such an irresponsible father you wouldn’t be in this mess. Ethan’s only ten, he needs a role model, not this.”

She waved a dismissive hand at him.

“Jesus, Michael, get a job, clean yourself up.”

“I have a job. You know that.” He started walking out to the parking lot. “Say goodbye to Ethan. I’ll be in the car waiting, he’s not going to see us fight.”

“Blogging is not a real job,” Linda yelled after him. “Stability, Michael. That’s what he needs.”

Michael reached his beat up Mazda and wrenched open the door.

“It’s not blogging,” he muttered under his breath. He had been writing for an online cinema magazine, Take Two, as a resident movie critic for the past nine months. The problem was it wasn’t always guaranteed money. There was no official salary. He was a part-time, contract employee. Linda was right; no court would accept that as stable income.

He watched as Linda hugged Ethan. For a moment it looked like the boy didn’t want to let go. Then he slowly turned and walked across the parking lot, opened the passenger door and climbed in.

“Hey bud! How was school?”

“Mom says to remind you we have to go to the zoo before it closes. I have a project due on Monday.” The boy didn’t look in his direction, he simply put on his seatbelt and stared straight ahead.

“Well, hello to you too, Ethan.” He put the backpack in the boy’s lap and reached up to tussle his hair. Ethan turned and watched out the window as Linda drove off.

“Don’t worry, bud. I didn’t forget.” He smiled as he put the car in gear. “In fact, I got something great planned.” He pulled out of the parking lot and turned north onto a frontage road. Ethan watched for a moment and then spoke up.

“We’re not going to the zoo, are we?”

“Nah. This is even better.” Michael glanced at his son who was semi-slumped against the window. He poked him in the side and the boy drew back a little, a small smile creeping onto his face. Michael reached out again and Ethan blocked his hand, pinning it to the seat. They smiled at each other.

“Trust me, bud. This will be even better than some lame old zoo.”

Michael put both hands back on the wheel and merged onto the highway.

Two hours later, the old Mazda pulled into a dusty parking lot just outside Los Padres National Forest. Michael parked next to a couple other beat up cars and got out.

“What is this, Dad?”

“It’s more or less a park-and-ride, but for the field workers. This way our car won’t stick out too much.” He winked at his son. Ethan just stared back, a quizzical look on his face. He watched as his dad unloaded two pairs of boots from the trunk of the car.

“Here you go, Ethan. Put these on, it’ll make the hike easier.”

“What hike?” asked Ethan, not moving.

Michael was lacing up his boots as he sat on the back bumper. He motioned Ethan over to sit by him.

“Yeah, I guess your Mom probably never talked about this place. To be honest, I don’t think she was ever a big fan. We used to come out here all the time,” he continued as he got out a piece of paper and pen. “But, yeah, I guess we only came out here maybe once since you were born. Mom said it just wasn’t a good idea to bring you out.”

He wrote down his phone number, address, and a brief note describing where they were going and left the note upside down in the cup holder, then he locked the doors and grabbed Ethan’s backpack and a couple of water bottles.

“You ready?”

“I guess.”

The two of them headed out the south side of the parking lot down the hill on a short makeshift trail that met up with an actual park trail at the bottom. After about fifteen minutes, they passed by a ranger checkpoint station and a small campground. There were no tents at any of the sites, and from the look of things, not even the ranger stayed there overnight. There was no special ‘Headquarters’ RV or cabin, just a small kiosk.

Outside the station was a young woman, dressed in full ranger get-up. Ethan guessed that she was a part-time volunteer that spent the day out in the field and then went home in the evening. She smiled as they passed by. Both Ethan and Michael waved in return.

“Out for a short hike?” she asked, eyeballing the two water bottles.

“Yeah. Just finishing up the Quail Loop.”

“Will you be able to get back to your vehicle before dusk?” She was now looking at Ethan.

“Oh yeah,” replied Michael with large smile. “We’re parked at the trailhead, not too much further. We do this all the time. What’s our record, son? Forty-eight minutes?”

He looked down at Ethan, who hesitated for a brief second. He knew his dad was up to something; they had never been here before, let alone have a personal record.

“Forty-six, dad,” he gave the Ranger his biggest smile. She chuckled.

“Alright, then. Have a good hike.”

She waved as they disappeared around the corner into a grove of oak trees.

They walked for another ten minutes before Michael had them stop for a water break. Ethan finally spoke up.

“Quail Loop?”

“Yep. It’s a three-mile loop just off of Telegraph Road. If we were to continue on another ten minutes we’d be back at the trailhead.”

“And our car.”

Michael laughed.

“Yeah, and our car.”

He ruffled the boy’s hair and then crouched down and scoured the edge of the trail, peering into the brush. Ethan watched in amazement as his dad suddenly disappeared into a slight break in the undergrowth.

“Dad!” Ethan ran to the edge of the trail, trying to find where his dad had gone through. “Dad!”

“Follow the arrow, Ethan.” His dad’s voice came from the other side of the brush.

“What arrow?”

Ethan searched back and forth along the brush. He didn’t see anything. There was nothing there.

“Come on, Dad. What arrow?”

There was no answer. Ethan stopped and took a deep breath. He went back to about where his dad had gone through. This time he didn’t look at the brush, instead he crouched down and searched the ground. There, slightly obscured by some weeds was a small design inscribed on a rock. It was an arrow. He slowly parted the brush and sure enough, there was a small opening. He got down on his hands and knees and went through. He crawled for a while and reached a clearing. He wasn’t more than ten feet from the trail, but when Ethan stood up, he couldn’t even see the trail.

“What do you think, bud?” Michael had a full-sized hiking backpack on and looked absolutely beside himself with anticipation. “This is way better than some old zoo, eh?”

“But, I have to write about-”

“The Western Pond Turtle, I know. Why do you think we’re here?”

Ethan just stared back at him blankly.

“I stashed this bag here two days ago just for this,” Michael finished. “I figure we can spend the night out under the stars and be back home tomorrow in time to write up the paper. What do you say?”

“That’s why you told her we parked at the trailhead,” Ethan said, putting the pieces together. “You didn’t want her to come looking for us. Or the car.”

“Exactly. So, what do you say, you up for it?”

Michael grabbed the straps of the backpack and stood there, waiting for an answer.

“Okay, dad. Let’s go.”

Ethan smiled and reached out to take his own backpack. He slung it over his shoulders and set out after Michael.

They hiked for a good hour before Michael turned off the trail and headed into the deep brush. Ethan followed close behind, unable to see further than a foot or so through the thick undergrowth. They emerged along the edge of a cliff. Michael reached out and held Ethan back.

“Watch your step. It’s a long drop.”




Ethan looked down. It was indeed a long drop, probably thirty feet. At the bottom was a large mud pit spotted with large rocks. The mud gave way to a beach of sorts at one end, mostly smaller rocks and pebbles, but the rest was surrounded either by the cliff or impassable moss-covered rocks and brush.

“It may not look like it,” Michael started to explain. “But this used to be quite the hot spot when I was your age. We would come up here all the time, after school, weekends, vacation. It’s been a while though, and nobody even knows about it any more.”

Ethan edged closer to get a better look.

“Why are we here then?”

“Because, you have a report to do on the Western Pond Turtle. And,” he gestured down to the pond below. “This happens to be an ideal location.”

Ethan just stared back at his father.

“Seriously, I looked it up. The Western Pond turtle, despite the name, prefers muddier locations, especially those which are a little more secluded and not frequented by people.”

“Yeah, I know, Dad. But, how do you know that there are any here? There must be lots of places like this”

“I came out here a while back just to see if I could find it again and the place was crawling with them.”

He reached into his pack and pulled out a pair of binoculars.

“Take a look.”

Ethan took the binoculars and peered over the edge. He scoured the edges of the pond. Nothing. Just past a rocky outcropping, there was a small beach area filled with smaller pebbles and brush rather than the usual large rocks. Ethan focused his search there. Sure enough, a few seconds later he could just make out the shape of the turtle, partially covered by the tall grass growing out of the mud.

“Got one!” he said.

“Just one?” replied Michael. “Keep looking. Last time there were dozens.”

Ethan scanned the surrounding area.

“Nope, just the one. Wait, there’s another one in the pond. It’s-” he stopped mid-sentence. He squinted into the binoculars, his face scrunching up with concentration.

“It’s strange,” was all that Ethan could say.

Michael stared down at the pond. From this height it was difficult to see any details. In the middle of the pond, though, there was something moving through the mud.

“What do you mean, strange? Let me take a look.” Ethan handed over the binoculars. Michael brought them up to his eyes, but took a second to locate the animal. The shell was almost the exact same color as the mud. In fact, as it moved it didn’t look so much like an animal but more like a wave slowly moving towards the shore. There was no other movement, no secondary motion of legs, not even a head above the surface, just a mud-colored shell gliding through the pond.

“That is strange. I wonder if it’s a- Whoa! Where did it go?”

He searched frantically to find the animal again but it had flashed out of sight and was gone. He lowered the binoculars.

“Did you see where it went?” he asked Ethan. His son shook his head.

“I was watching it and then looked over to see if I could find the other one and when I looked back it was gone. Did it go under water?”

“I don’t think so. It just shot out of sight. I’ve never seen a turtle move like that.”

They both peered down at the pond. The breeze rustled some of the leaves from overhanging branches, but otherwise all was quiet. Out of the corner of his eye, Ethan saw something move along the shore, just below where the first turtle had been. He nudged his dad and pointed. Michael raised the binoculars back up to his eyes.

“It’s the turtle. I don’t know where that other thing went,” he said and then paused. Something wasn’t right about how that turtle was moving. He adjusted the focus of the binoculars. He exhaled slightly as he realized why it was moving like that. It was being dragged by whatever it was they had seen earlier.

Michael could see more of the creature now as it dragged its prey back into the mud. It moved by propelling itself with long oversized limbs, like a bat crawling along the ground on its wings. It had an elongated head and enormous jaws for its size; half of the turtle, which itself must have been two or even three feet in length, was inside the creature’s mouth. As it turned to move around a rock, Michael got a good look at its profile. The teeth were massive, almost grotesquely so. They sank deep into the turtle and some had gone straight through the shell.

“Ethan, how hard is a turtle’s shell?” he asked, without taking his eyes off the scene below.

“I don’t know. Hard, like bone I guess. Why?”

He was trying to get around him for a better view.

“That’s what I thought.”

The creature was now almost fully submerged, blending in perfectly with the surrounding mud. Suddenly, the turtle made one last effort to escape. It struggled against the jaws and attempted to claw its way free. It managed to wiggle free of the jaws when, in one swift move, the creature corralled it with its arms, leaned its head back, and struck down with its enormous mouth. Michael heard a loud crunch and then all was silent. The creature was gone. So was the turtle.

Michael lowered the binoculars and looked at Ethan. The boy stared back. Ethan hadn’t been able to see the details of what had just happened, but he had seen enough.

“What was that?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” Michael shook his head. “I really don’t know. I mean, I have no idea what the hell that thing was.”

“Dad,” Ethan looked down at the pond again. “I read that turtles, after they’ve grown up, don’t have any natural enemies. That means they can’t be eaten then, right? So, where are they? You said there were a bunch of them.”

Michael reached down and tussled the boy’s hair, then put his arm around his shoulders and bent down.

“I don’t know, Bud.”

He turned Ethan’s face away from the pond so that they were looking straight at each other again.

“Tell you what. We’ll camp up here tonight and tomorrow go down and try and figure it out.”

Ethan nodded, but still looked uneasy.

“Maybe we should just head back to the car? What if there are more of them?”

“No, there’s not enough light to make it back. Besides, it went back into the pond, under the mud. My guess is that’s where it lives. So even if there are more, we’ll be fine up here.”

Michael tried to reassure him with a bright smile.

“Think about it. We might have discovered a new species of something. Try finding that at a zoo. We should try and get some photos or something.”

He started rummaging through his backpack and pulled out a small digital camera.

“Here, take some pictures of the pond and then start writing about the turtle that you saw. I’ll get camp started and then we can sit down together and figure out how to introduce our new species in your report.”

Michael cleared out an area about ten feet from the edge of the cliff and set his pack down. He unrolled the tent, but his hands were shaking too much to thread the tent poles through the tiny slots. He didn’t want Ethan to see how nervous he was so he started gathering rocks for a fire ring. In ten minutes it would be too dangerous to hike back. They would have to stay here tonight. However, there was no way he was taking Ethan down to that pond tomorrow. He had seen how quick that thing had struck. He didn’t think one would really be a problem, but what if Ethan was right and there were more? He looked back at Ethan. He didn’t think the boy would need much convincing.

About twenty minutes later, the sun had set and Michael, after some effort, had a nice fire going. It was a warm night, but the fire was comforting, and neither Ethan nor Michael strayed too far from its glow. They ate dinner in silence. Later on, as Michael cleaned up, Ethan sat down and worked on his report by the firelight.

“How’s it going?” Michael asked.

“Okay. I can’t really concentrate. I don’t know how to start.”

Michael dried off the last dish and sat down next to him. So far the boy had written the title: “The Mud Bat”.

“The Mud Bat, huh? I didn’t think you had seen it?”

“I saw enough.”

He dropped his pen on the notebook.

“Dad? Do we really have to go down there tomorrow?”

Ethan looked at his dad, his eyes telling the full story. He was afraid, but he didn’t want to let his dad down. If Michael were to ask him to go he would go. He wouldn’t complain, wouldn’t even hesitate, but deep down he would add it to the list of things that he resented.

“No, buddy. If you don’t want to, we won’t,” Michael replied. He could have kicked himself. He wasn’t disappointed, he was relieved, but that had come out like something his old man would have said. Sure son, if you want to give up, go ahead. Ethan just dropped his eyes and nodded, confirming Michael’s suspicions.

“Come on. Let’s go to bed.”

He walked back to the fire and spread out the coals. Then he ushered Ethan inside the tent. The small space quickly filled with silence as they got changed. There wasn’t much to say and neither of them knew how to say it. They got in their sleeping bags and lay there for a while. Ethan finally broke the silence.

“Dad? Will you give me chills?”

Michael couldn’t see him in the darkness, but he could hear the worry in his voice. Michael reached over and lightly ran his fingers up and down the boy’s back. It was something his mother had done for him and he in turn had done for Ethan. It was calming.

“You remember I used to do that for you every night?” Michael asked.

“Yeah. I remember. It helps me sleep.”

Sure enough, five minutes later, he was out. Michael stayed awake a little longer listening to the night come alive outside. He was failing. These weekends were all he had and yet he seemed to be making things worse every step of the way. He drifted off with thoughts of Ethan running as fast as he could towards Linda and giving her a huge hug, so happy the weekend was over.

Michael awoke to the loudest cacophony of nighttime activity that he had ever heard. There was a slow building series of clicks, increasing in both frequency and volume, followed by an almost deafening hiss. It sounded like an army of cicadas attacking a giant anaconda.

Michael rolled over to see if Ethan was somehow still asleep. There was very little moonlight, so he could barely make out the small shape in the sleeping bag.

“Ethan?” he whispered. Nothing. He sure was a deep sleeper. He reached out and his hand collapsed the sleeping bag. There was nothing inside it.

He was up in an instant, frantically searching the tent.

“Ethan, where are you?”

He ripped open the sleeping bag. Ethan was nowhere to be found. Then he saw that the flap was open. He bolted for the opening and burst outside.

“Ethan!”

Ethan was lying prone along the cliff, peering down over the edge. Michael almost tripped over him.

“Dad, shhh.”

“What are you doing?” Michael said, quieter.

“That noise you hear,” Ethan said. “That hiss. I think they’re talking to each other.”

He motioned for his dad to lie down next to him. Once there, Michael peered over the edge as well. Below, the pond was alive with activity. All throughout the pond little shapes were skirting around, moving quickly from shore to shore. There was more movement in and around the rocks. The shore of the pond was littered with the bodies of turtles and birds and maybe raccoons or some other small animal.

The chatter coming from below was immense. It was the same that Michael had heard in the tent, a clicking noise followed by a low hiss. The clicks were always followed by the hissing, and the latter seemed to be further away from the pond.

“I think you’re right,” said Michael straining against the moonlight to get a better picture of what was happening.

“Dad, what are they?”

Michael could only shake his head and wrap his arm around the boy. He had no idea what was going on below, but he now was thanking Linda for being so late at the drop off. If she hadn’t been so late, the two of them would have camped down below there next to the pond.

All of a sudden the creatures in the pond worked themselves into frenzy. They scampered towards the north end of the pond and huddled together, like wild fight dogs waiting to be fed for the evening. In front of them the grass parted and a group of five or six creatures emerged, dragging the body of a small deer.

“Jesus,” Michael let escape as he covered his mouth. While the deer was not nearly a full size adult, it was probably a good seventy pound adolescent. He looked over at Ethan. He couldn’t have weighed much more than that deer.

As the creatures brought the deer to the edge of the pond, the group erupted in an explosion of teeth and claws. Within moments the deer was completely submerged. As they tore into the body, the hissing died down to a light din in the background. Michael and Ethan could hear the bones being crushed by the creatures’ massive jaws. Just as soon as it had started it was over. The hissing started back up again and it was even more intense.

“Come on,” whispered Michael. “Let’s get out of here.” He turned away from the edge and started to make his way back to the tent.

“Dad, wait.” Ethan reached out and grabbed his arm. “Why aren’t they clicking anymore?”

Michael stopped. He was right. Before, the clicking had preceded the hissing, but now there was just the hissing. Something inside Michael told him this was a very bad sign. He reached down to pull Ethan up when something moved in the brush to his right. Michael didn’t stop to find out what it was.




“We’d better go, Ethan. Now.”

He yanked the boy up to his feet as the clicking started up again, off to their right.

“Run!”

They took off back towards the trail, tripping every other step in the darkness. Michael pushed Ethan ahead of him and the boy went sprawling forward onto the ground. Something skirted across the trail in front of them. Michael reached down and grabbed Ethan by the shoulders but couldn’t quite pull him out. His leg was caught in some branches. Michael pulled harder and freed Ethan’s leg, but as he did so the branches reached higher, grabbed onto his thigh and started to drag Ethan into the bushes. Ethan kicked out with his other leg, knocking off one of the arms. Michael heard a snarl and saw a set of glimmering white teeth and two red eyes under the brush. He lashed out with his own foot and caught the creature square in the eyes. It let out a howl and let go of Ethan’s other leg. Ethan scrambled to his feet and they took off again for the trail. As they did, the clicking grew to a roar in front of them. Michael stopped and held Ethan back.

“Not that way!” he yelled. “They’re up there!”

He turned and started crashing through the brush to his right and stopped again. The clicking spread out in front of him, anticipating his move. They were all around, blocking the way.

“They’re forcing us back to the tent.”

He paused and looked back.

“Forcing us back to the cliff.”

They looked at each other, turned, and ran to the tent. Michael flung open the flap and they dove inside. They started scrounging around for something to use as a weapon. The clicking grew louder and surrounded them outside. Michael was tossing things out of his backpack, throwing clothes around the tent. He finally found a utility knife and opened it up.

“Here, take this.” He passed it over to Ethan.

“But dad, what will you do?”

“I’ll be fine. You saw how I dealt with that last one.”

Michael knelt down and put his hands on Ethan’s shoulders.

“Here’s the deal, Ethan. They want to keep us close to the edge here, probably try and get us down in the pond. We can’t let that happen. We have to bust through them. When I say run, you run. Don’t stop. Period. Don’t stop till you get to the car. You understand?”

Ethan nodded.

“Look, we need a way to distract them or scare them.”

He looked back through his pack and the rest of Ethan’s.

“What about fire?” Ethan thought out loud. “Aren’t animals scared of fire?”

“Yes! That’s perfect.”

Michael stopped. They had let the fire burn down over two hours ago, maybe more. There might be some coals left, but that was a big chance to take without some sort of fuel.

“Look for a lighter or something.”

He knew there wasn’t one. He had started the fire earlier just as he had learned in the Boy Scouts. It had also taken him a good fifteen minutes to get it going. He didn’t think the creatures would just sit around for him to build up a nice protective fire. They needed something else, something unconventional.

Michael dropped down to his knees and started opening all the small pockets in his bag. Finally, he found the first aid kit. He turned to Ethan.

“I saw this on a survival show.”

He pulled out a small bag of cotton balls and some Neosporin. He squeezed as much as he could out onto a cotton ball.

“You got to rub it in good. Make sure it’s really coated.”

Ethan nodded and started to put the rest of the Neosporin on the remaining cotton balls. Michael then explained the rest of the plan as Ethan listened intently. Finally, Michael finished.

“You use that knife and you use your legs and you don’t stop. Ready?”

Ethan nodded again.

“Ready.”

Michael burst out of the tent and ran straight for the fire pit. He skidded on his knees just short of the simmering coals and tossed two handfuls of shredded paper from Ethan’s report into the fire. A creature leaped out of the shadows and knocked into Michael’s side, almost taking him down to the ground. It reached out with its long arms, its claws inches from his bare arms. Michael kicked out and jumped to his left, away from the attack, and then grabbed a large rock from the fire pit. He threw it at the creature, hitting it square in the face. It sprawled on the ground and lay still. Michael turned back to the fire. The paper hadn’t caught yet, but some smoke was starting to rise from it.

The clicking continued all around them, coming in waves. The answering hiss from the pond grew louder and more constant. Michael glanced around the darkness. He was taking too long. He had to use the cotton balls. He reached into his pocket and pulled one out. He knew it was risky but he leaned over the fire and blew on the coal, holding the cotton ball up to it with one hand and cupping the coal with the other. It started to glow and he blew harder. The coal burned brighter, but still didn’t ignite.

“Dad! Watch out.”

The creatures had spread out and one was coming up behind him. Michael dropped the cotton ball in the coals and braced for the attack, but it didn’t come. Michael glanced back at the creature that was now looking at the tent. Another one came up beside it. They were cutting the two of them off.

Michael looked down at the coals, they were still glowing and a tiny flicker of flame licked the side of the cotton ball.

“Get ready, Ethan!”

Michael tossed the remaining cotton balls into the fire pit and ran back toward the tent. He kicked at the creatures, but they easily jumped aside, hissing at him as he ran by. At the tent he could see three more just on the other side. He opened it up and dove inside. Ethan was waiting there with two “torches”. He had stuffed two socks with disinfectant wipes and tied them to the rain cover poles with shoelaces as instructed. He had also saved a little Neosporin and dabbed what he could on the outside of the socks. Michael gave him a huge hug.

“I love you, Ethan.”

“I love you too, Dad.”

Ethan handed over one of the torches. There was movement all around the tent, and by now they were most likely surrounded, but a small light was glowing from the fire pit. The cotton balls had caught and were starting to burn. If they could get their torches lit, they had a chance.

“Stay behind me, and keep up.”

They came out of the tent at a full run and headed straight for the fire pit. Two creatures jumped at Michael’s legs. He elbowed one off but the other hung on. He dragged it for a few feet to the fire pit and then slammed it into a rock, banging his shin in the process. He stuck his torch into the blue flame of the cotton balls and reached back for Ethan’s torch, but he wasn’t there.

Michael wheeled around. Six of the creatures had surrounded Ethan and they were forcing him towards the edge of the cliff. He yanked his torch back out of the fire and ran to help.

Michael could see the attack coming, but he was too far away to do anything.

“Ethan, watch out!”

One of the creatures leaped at Ethan and he knocked it away with his torch. Then two more attacked from the other side. One grabbed onto his leg and another circled around behind him. Ethan hammered his fist down on its head, but the motion threw him off balance. Michael was five feet away when he was blindsided. One creature landed on his back while two more attacked his arm. The torch was knocked to the ground, out of reach.

Ethan screamed. A creature had bit him on the shoulder and had a good grip on him. Michael tore at the creatures on his arm, tossing one off. He was oblivious to the pain as something took repeated bites out of his back. He needed to get to his son. Another creature crashed into his leg and he tumbled to the ground.

Suddenly the creature on top of Ethan let out a high-pitched yelp and tumbled off of him. Ethan raised the knife and stabbed it again. As he did, he was attacked from the other side and thrown over the edge, tangled up with yet another one. Michael kneed the beast off his leg and reached over his shoulder grabbing the one on his back. He could feel his flesh tear away as he yanked it off. He threw it over the cliff and ran to where Ethan had been.

The boy was clinging to a rock, dangling over the edge. He was struggling to hang on as he jerked his leg back and forth trying to dislodge the creature attached to his shoe. Michael reached down and grabbed his arm.

“Use the rocks!” he shouted. Ethan grabbed onto Michael’s arm with both hands and swung his leg out as far as he could, then he slammed it against the rock wall. The creature fell to the pond below.

Michael pulled Ethan up the cliff just as a huge flame erupted behind them. His torch had landed under a dry sage bush and now the fire was spreading fast. Creatures were scattering before the flames. They no longer cared about their prey; they were fleeing for safety.

Michael helped Ethan to his feet. They didn’t have much time to think. The fire was already burning along the trail and it wouldn’t take long for it to completely surround them. They tried to run around the far side of the tent to try to get ahead of the flames, but Ethan couldn’t move, his foot was a bloody mess and he was unable to put any weight on it. Michael’s back was also bleeding profusely, soaking his shirt, and his own leg was torn in numerous places, making it difficult to move. They were trapped.

They watched in horror as the fire leaped across the trail and swallowed up the bushes on the other side. The heat was unbearable. Michael looked at Ethan, who nodded back. They only had one choice now. As the fire engulfed the tent, father and son joined hands and jumped.

#

 

Michael awoke to the rhythmic sound of a heart rate monitor. He tried to sit up, but winced as a sharp pain shot all the way down his back. He started to roll over onto his side instead and stopped as he realized his leg was in a cast, elevated above his bed.

“Don’t move, Dad. You’re in bad shape.”

Ethan was standing beside him, holding his hand. He was on crutches with a cast of his own.

“Hey, Ethan. What happened? I remember jumping and then, nothing.”

“Well it’s one hell of a story actually,” said a voice from the doorway. A doctor in his mid-fifties, with slightly graying hair walked in holding a clipboard. He was flanked by a uniformed police officer.

“Seems you survived a wild fire, a thirty foot fall, several broken bones, and a concussion all in the same night.”

The doctor approached the bed and stopped, thumbing through the report.

“And, it seems, coyotes as well,” added the officer. “Your son here told us the whole story.”

Michael looked at Ethan, but said nothing.

“Yeah, Dad. When we landed you hit your head, I think. We made it to shore but then you passed out. I must have too, because I woke up and a pack of coyotes was all around us. Two of them were trying to drag you off and when I tried to stop them, another one bit me in the foot. I threw some rocks and they ran off. They came back again but never got too close.”

Michael stared at his son. Why had he made this all up? Then it hit him. They had no proof. The camera was gone, even the report had been lost. It would have been just a story, a crazy outlandish story that Linda could use against him.

“I never knew coyotes to attack such large game. Especially two of them,” said the officer, glancing from Michael to Ethan. “But, I suppose if you guys looked dead, they might have tried to scavenge some.”

He was now staring right at Ethan.

“At any rate, Doc, unless you got anything else to tell me, I’m headed downstairs to let her know that as far as I’m concerned, this investigation is over.”

The doctor shook his head and the officer left.

“Yes, quite the story,” said the doctor, setting his clipboard in the file slot on the door. “Good to see you awake again, Mr. Fisher. I’ll come back later to fill you in on your therapy schedule.”

He left without a further word. Ethan watched him go, then turned to his father. Michael studied his son’s face.

“What did happen, Ethan? I know we landed in the water,” he winced as he adjusted his leg. “But after that it’s all blank.”

Ethan shook his head.

“We were on the shore and everything was on fire, and those creatures, they were just everywhere.”

Ethan shuddered. He was staring past the bed, his eyes unfocused, head tilted slightly as if trying to read something written on the far wall. Michael said nothing, letting the visions of that night flow past his son’s eyes. Finally, Ethan looked down.

“Did they hurt you?” Michael craned his neck to get a better view of his son’s legs. Other than the bulging bandage around his foot, he looked fine. Ethan shook his head again.

“No, they ran off. They were terrified of the fire and they just ran away. I mean, I think that fire saved our lives.”

Michael pulled him onto the hospital bed and hugged him tight. Ethan curled up next to him.

“Mom’s downstairs,” he almost cried. “She says you’re in trouble. I had to make something up, I couldn’t tell them the truth.”

“I know. They’d think I was crazy, or had given you drugs or something. It’s bad enough I took you on a secret illegal camping trip, but add a crazy “killer mud-bat” story to it. No, they’d have me in a straight jacket immediately.”

Ethan gave him a hug.

“I’m sorry, bud,” Michael whispered.

“Get away from him, Ethan,” Linda said from the doorway. Ethan and Michael both looked up.




“What am I going to do, Linda?” asked Michael. “Have him wheel me out of here and then get away on the number ten bus?”

“You’re unfit, Michael, plain and simple. You could have gotten him killed. An unauthorized, unplanned, unsafe trip? You’re in deep now, Michael. Real deep.”

She grabbed Ethan by the arm and started to drag him away. Ethan looked at his dad lying weak and helpless in the bed, after having been so heroic only hours before. He wriggled free and limped to the side of the bed, between his two parents.

“Ethan? What are you doing?”

Ethan laced his fingers between his Dad’s. Michael squeezed them in support.

“Mom, it’s okay. I’m okay.”

“That’s not the point. The point is you never should have been out there in the first place.”

“Leave dad alone.”

Michael raised his eyebrows in surprise, and Linda’s face was unable to hide her own shock and denial. Ethan had never defended his dad before.

“What?”

“I want you to leave him alone. I get to say who I want to be with too, don’t I?”

Linda took a step back. She turned to Michael.

“You’ll be hearing from my-”

“Your lawyer? Who? Larry?” Michael laughed. “He doesn’t scare me, Linda.”

Linda stared at Michael, and then Ethan. Something had changed in them, they had bonded in a way that didn’t include her, or even the thought of her. She clearly didn’t like it. She grabbed Ethan and stormed off, dragging Ethan behind by his arm. Michael called out as they got to the door.

“Hey, Ethan. See you next Saturday.”

Ethan winked as he disappeared into the hallway. Michael leaned back against the pillows, wincing slightly as he readjusted his leg. He hadn’t felt this good in years.

 

 

END

 

Joel Stewart asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

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